When compiling a list of commercial directors turned filmmakers a bevy of impressive names feature: Ridley Scott. David Fincher. Spike Jonze. Soon to join that list is Rupert Sanders.
A winner of two Golden Lions at Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival for his work on the Halo 3: ODST commercial, the English born Sanders has dived into the deep end with his feature film debut taking on the Snow White fairytale for a much darker and visually gorgeous interpretation in Snow White and the Huntsman.
The film stars Kristen Stewart as Snow White, who along with drunken widower Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) must defeat the evil Queen Ravenna and end her tyrannical rule over a kingdom left in ruins.
Matt’s Movie Reviews spoke to Sanders about making Snow White and the Huntsman, the advantages of coming from the world of commercial directing and the process of casting his lead characters.
The first thing that grabbed my attention was the visuals. When you were first approached with Snow White…, what were the original visual concepts that ran through your mind?
You know, whenever I read something the brain starts going and you start to find those visual ideas, so it’s really just a continuation of that, the more I read the more I kind of…then you start thinking and the brain starts clicking away.
I knew that I wanted to make a medieval epic. I knew that I wanted to make something that changed the expectations of the original story but was very much that original story.
You come from a commercial background. When I think of directors who started out in commercials, names that pop into my head are Ridley Scott and David Fincher, filmmakers who are visually strong. Does commercial directing give filmmakers an edge in delivering visually rich movies?
Yeah…I mean there are great visual filmmakers who never made a commercial, but I think what we do in this kind of scale is…you have a very short space of time to be seen in a 30 second or 60 second crowded marketplace. You’ve got to be doing something very special that stops people and makes them look. That I think is one of the advantages.
But also the advantages that we’re constantly working, constantly trying different things, and constantly making film…we’re on set all year. So that’s a great advantage when it comes to mounting a big film like this. You’ve done it a lot.
I imagine casting the character of Snow White that it would be a tricky task, since not only is she the face of the movie but the description of the “fairest of them all” is a high standard to live up to. A lot of actresses lined up for the part. What was it about Kristen Stewart that made her the ideal choice?
I think that she is very modern, she is very strong, she is very independent, she is spirited, she makes her own choices in life, she is very young , she’s got the weight of the world on her shoulders and she still knows what she’s up to, and that’s what I wanted Snow White to have. I didn’t want her to be a wilting wallflower, and I wanted her to be decisive. I think she’s got everything that Snow White should.
"I didn’t want her to be a wilting wallflower, and I wanted her to be decisive. I think she’s got everything that Snow White should." - Rupert Sanders
These days the role of the Princess is no longer to look pretty and wait for Prince Charming. What do you think led to the evolution of the pro-active princess and is it something that’ll stay?
I don’t know. I think with things as cyclical the great thing about our film is that we’ve got two very strong female leads playing what would have historically been masculine roles, and then not playing them in a masculine way. They’re playing them as strong women, and that’s exciting.
It’s rare. I don’t think that every film now is gonna be driven by strong women. But I think it’s playing with the expectations of it.
Speaking of that second actress… Charlize Theron was simply ferocious in this film. She has a stare that can burn a hole through you.
Yeah I know. She has got a good look.
She does. How do you go about directing a performance like that? Did Charlize bring many of her own ideas?
Yeah! I mean, to me direction is conversation, so a lot of the work comes out of conversations before you can get on the set so you know you’re both understanding the direction, and you’re understanding the actor, and that’s really exciting. So most of the work you kind of…the big picture things you talk through before you get on set, and then once you’re on set it’s about fine tuning that and trying things.
In this film you gave the Queen a reason, or a source, for her evil ways. Is it a case that the concept of pure evil in a character just won’t work on today’s cinema audience?
I think there are still lots of films that have a pure evil character. We made a very conscious decision that we wanted someone who wanted to understand where she was coming from, and ultimately she comes from the same place Snow White does, but both react to it very differently. They both suffer great loss, they both lose their families and lose everything….they lose their homes. So it’s just how each of them react to it. One is fair and just, and the other is brutal and murderous.
The interesting thing with the Snow White character is that in trying to win back her kingdom she declares war on the Queen, which in itself is a brutal act. That can be seen as “Just War”. Can you see the logic behind the declaration of a “Just War” in such an extreme situation?
Yeah. I think it would be very weird for her not to have…it’s kind of hard, because the way I saw it is she is this weapon that is being smashed into the castle, so that she can go and do what she has to do. She is not hacking and slaying all of sunder, you know? It’s a very tactical assault to get her into the castle so she can end the Queen. I don’t think she wants to do it. The sword weighs very heavy in her hand. But I think she realises that to reclaim the kingdom, she must do it.
The Huntsman role was also very sort after. I remember reading names like Hugh Jackman and Viggo Mortensen attached to the role. Chris Hemsworth is younger than those two. Did casting Chris bring about any script changes especially in regards to his relationship top Snow White?
Yeah, it did. We changed the script a lot when we got Chris. We were very lucky to get him. He’s perfect for the role. Casting is a strange alchemy and I can’t think of anyone who could have done a better job than Chris in that role.
I think when we watched the first dailies of him arriving at the Queen’s palace we were all like: “Wow! Chris is fucking amazing”. Because he brings such a different energy. It’s very kind of wild and rugged in this film. That’s when everything was quite different because he arrived after a month of principal photography and we established all the other characters, so when he came it was great to kind of have this new energy.
"He’s perfect for the role. Casting is a strange alchemy and I can’t think of anyone who could have done a better job than Chris in that role." - Rupert Sanders
He has such a strong screen presence as well. Do you like your actors to stand out in that way?
I think for that character especially you needed that. Also this is the first time we’ve seen him in kind of lead a performance. As Thor he was very much a character. I think this is a very honest performance and that’s something we haven’t seen from him.
The interesting thing about 2012 is that we had two Snow White films. When there is another production based on the same source material, does that affect the way you approach your own work?
No, not really. I just did my own thing with it. I didn’t want to worry too much about it because I didn’t know what the point was. My producer has made hundreds of films and was just like “Get on and make your own film and don’t worry about anyone else”, and we did.
When I put out on Twitter that I was interviewing you today a lot of fans – especially Kristen Stewart fans – wanted to know if there was going to be a sequel. So is there a sequel in the works?
There is already a sequel in the works, and I think it’s a very exciting opportunity because it’s kind of an open book but we got these great characters and this great world, and we got great ideas on how to change that.
What are we looking out in regards to a release date? A couple of years’ time?
God knows. (laughs)
There is no projected deadline for you to meet?
I guess we’ll have to see out this one turns out, but it’s already doing smash numbers.
Yeah I know, it’s been really good!
Approaching a film like this, your debut, with a budget of $170 million starring an Oscar winner and one of the biggest actresses in the world today, was there any type of trepidation?
Yeah, very anxious. It’s a big machine to run, but you can’t…you’ve got to focus on the work and if you don’t challenge yourself in life you never move on. I knew what I had to do, I knew how to do it and I just had to get my head down and push hard and work fucking hard and get the film done.
We were very limited in our time. We shot the film in 80 days and post-produced in four months, so we wrapped in Christmas last year so it’s been incredibly quick. We didn’t have any re-shoots or anything like that, we were on budget…so all of these things stack up to the next project that you take on. People want to know that you are a responsible filmmaker as well as an artistic one.
As to your own ambitions with your filmmaking career, are you going to do more of these type of blockbuster movies or is it anything you can get your hands on?
I don’t know if it will be anything I can get my hands on. It’s just about making those choices, and you know…you just don’t know how you would respond to material until you read it, and luckily this is doing well enough that people are asking me to do other things and it’s just taking a choice on what to do next. But it doesn’t really have to be a big film. It could be a 2 million dollar budget. It’s just the story, really.